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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Front & Center: Gobel drives Spokane Folk Festival with new musicians, dedicated volunteers

Sylvia Gobel is the executive director of the Spokane Folklore Society’s Fall Folk Festival. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Next weekend’s 20th annual Folk Festival at Spokane Community College is a celebration of international music, handmade crafts, ethnic food … and volunteerism.

Preparations began nine months ago. By the time the celebration concludes Sunday evening, some 600 organizers and musicians will have devoted countless hours to the event.

Coordinating their efforts is the responsibility of Sylvia Gobel, a Spokane Falls Community College library assistant and longtime festival director.

“My favorite job is trying to create a schedule that is balanced and fair,” she explains. “It’s like a huge puzzle, because a number of groups share musicians, so you can’t schedule them at the same time. And the public gets upset if I schedule two bluegrass groups or two belly dance groups at the same time.”

During a recent interview, Gobel discussed how the festival has evolved, what challenges lie ahead, and why it’s vital that young people embrace volunteerism.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Gobel: On Spokane’s North Side.

S-R: What were your interests?

Gobel: Reading, ice skating and international folk dance. We had folk dancing in elementary and junior high school P.E., and the Silver Spurs performed a couple of times a year when I was at Shadle Park.

S-R: Did you think about joining?

Gobel: I was too shy to audition.

S-R: What career did you envision for yourself?

Gobel: I loved foreign languages and travel, so I did a research paper on working in the foreign service.

S-R: Where did you go to college?

Gobel: Western Washington. I got a degree in French, not really knowing what I’d do.

S-R: What was your first job?

Gobel: During the summer I worked as a waitress in Yellowstone National Park. We had a lot of foreign visitors, and meeting them and talking to them fueled my interest in travel. So after graduation, I went to Europe for two and a half years. First I studied French at a university in France. Then I lived with families in Finland and Norway and tutored English.

S-R: How did you end up at Spokane Falls Community College?

Gobel: When I returned to Spokane, I got an entry-level job at the Valley library and really liked it. After eight years, a position opened up here. It was an 11-month contract, which allowed me more time to travel, so I applied and have been here 30 years.

S-R: Was there a moment or event that changed the direction of your life?

Gobel: Living in Europe. I gained a lot of confidence, because I was there on my own, figuring everything out. It taught me a lot about myself, my own culture and other cultures – differences and similarities – and gave me a better appreciation of the world.

S-R: What was your introduction to volunteering?

Gobel: My parents volunteered – my mother especially. She was always involved with the PTA and Girl Scouts and class reunions, and I remember helping her. When I returned to Spokane, I immediately got involved with the Folklore Society and Spokane Public Radio, and later I inherited an international folk dance group, which I ran for many years.

S-R: Tell me about your association with the Spokane Folk Festival.

Gobel: Four people started it in 1996. I was only peripherally involved at first. When the original four burned out, others stepped in, and I offered to handle programming. I took over as director in 2002.

S-R: Did you realize it was a long-term commitment?

Gobel: Probably, because I’d been involved in similar groups. And once you take it on, others see how much work it is and don’t want to do it. (laugh)

S-R: Was the festival successful from the start?

Gobel: Absolutely. We’ve never had any problem getting performers to come, and have been fortunate to get grants from groups like the Avista Foundation and Washington State Arts Commission.

S-R: What’s your budget?

Gobel: Between $20,000 and $25,000. That covers rent for SCC, publicity, and sound equipment for eight stages.

S-R: How has the festival evolved?

Gobel: It got bigger quickly. We outgrew the Unitarian Church right away. Then we heard about a “Lights On” program that allowed community groups to use school facilities when they were empty. We were assigned to Glover Middle School, but outgrew that space. So we moved to SCC, and on the 10th anniversary we expanded from one day to two. We’ve remained pretty stable since then. We can’t grow, because there’s no space for more performers.

S-R: Has the audience changed over the years?

Gobel: It’s remained about the same – mostly people in their 40s, 50s and 60s. We’re trying to get more young people – we talk about it all the time – but we don’t know how. It’s no secret that a lot of groups are having trouble attracting young people. But back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, international folk dancing was extremely popular on college campuses. The last several years, the festival has had some younger bands perform, and that may help attract younger audiences.

S-R: How much work goes into organizing the festival?

Gobel: A lot – don’t ask me how much. We start gearing up in March, and during the final three months it’s like having a second job.

S-R: What do you like most about it?

Gobel: My favorite thing is trying to create a schedule that is balanced and fair. … I work hard to make sure groups alternate between Saturday and Sunday, so the same performers don’t always get the best time slots. Most want to perform on Saturday, when there are more people. But I love Sunday. It’s much more relaxed.

S-R: What do you like least?

Gobel: Managing an all-volunteer organization is a challenge. We have many fabulous volunteers, but there are always some who drop the ball on a project. That creates stress and extra work for someone else.

S-R: Do you get to enjoy the festival?

Gobel: I do, because most of my work is done beforehand. Once the festival starts, I wander around taking notes and trying to see all the new performers. We have 20 to 25 new groups each year.

S-R: What sort of comments do you hear?

Gobel: First-timers are absolutely amazed by how many talented musicians we have in Spokane. When non-musicians see musicians jamming in the lobby, they’re entranced by the fact that people who don’t know each other can just sit down and create music together.

S-R: What are you most proud of?

Gobel: It’s very gratifying being part of a free event that brings together performers and audiences who might otherwise never connect.

S-R: What challenges lie ahead?

Gobel: Getting the next generation involved in the organization, so they can take over as members of the core committee retire.

S-R: What advice would you offer someone who’s considering volunteer opportunities?

Gobel: Do it! It’s very rewarding, and you get to know such fascinating people.

S-R: How do you relax?

Gobel: I go dancing. I don’t need down time. What rejuvenates me is going out and doing something social. That’s what recharges my batteries.

This interview has been condensed. If you have suggestions for business or community leaders to profile, contact Michael Guilfoil via email at